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   Chapter 19 MRS. MERILLIA HEATS THE POKER

The Prophet of Berkeley Square By Robert Hichens Characters: 18411

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


When Mr. Sagittarius, running at his fullest speed, emerged from Zoological House, wearing the hat and coat that the saturnine little clergyman had left behind him, the night was damp and gusty. As he hastened down the drive, and the sound of twenty guitars, playing "Oh would I were a Spaniard among you lemon groves!" died away in the lighted mansion behind him, he heard the roaring of the beasts in the gardens close by. In the wet darkness it sounded peculiarly terrific. He shuddered, and, holding up Mr. Ferdinand's trousers with both hands, hurried onward through the mire, whither he knew not. His only thought was that all was now discovered and that his life was in danger. A woman's vanity had wrecked his future. He must hide somewhere for the night, and get away in the morning, perhaps on board some tramp steamer bound for Buenos Ayres, or on a junk weighing anchor for Hayti or Java, or some other distant place. Vague memories of books he had read when a boy came back to him as he ran through the unkempt wilds of the Regent's Park. He saw himself a stowaway hidden in a hold, alone with rats and ships' biscuits. He saw himself working his way out before the mast, sent aloft in hurricanes on pitch-black nights, or turning the wheel the wrong way round and bringing the ship to wreck upon iron-bound coasts swarming with sharks and savages. The lions roared again, and the black panthers snarled behind their prison bars. He thought of the peaceful waters of the river Mouse, of the library of Madame, of the happy little circle of architects and their wives, of all that he must leave.

What wonder if he dropped a tear into the muddy road? What wonder if a sob rent the bosom of Mr. Ferdinand's now disordered shirt front? On and on Mr. Sagittarius-or Malkiel the Second, as he may from henceforth be called-went blindly, on and on till the Park was left behind, till crescents gave way to squares, and squares to streets. He passed an occasional policeman and slunk away from the penetrating bull's-eye. He heard now and then the far-off rattle of a cab, the shrill cry of a whistle, the howl of a butler summoning a vehicle, the coo of a cook bidding good-night to the young tradesman whom she loved before the area gate. And all these familiar London sounds struck strangely on his ear. When would he hear them again? Perhaps never. He stumbled on blinded with emotion.

Dogs, we know are guided by a strange instinct to find their homes even by unfamiliar paths. Pigeons will fly across wide spaces and drop down to the wicker cage that awaits them. And it would appear that prophets are not without a certain faculty that may be called topographical. For how else can the following fact be explained? Malkiel the Second, after apparently endless wandering, found himself totally unable to proceed further. His legs gave way beneath him. His breath failed. His brain swam. He reeled, stretched forth his hands and clutched at the nearest support. This chanced to be a railing, wet, slimy, cold. He grasped it, leaned against it, and for a few moments remained where he was in a sort of trance. Then, gradually, full consciousness returned. He glanced up and beheld the black garden of a square. Somehow it looked familiar. He seemed to know those shadowy, leafless trees, the roadway between him and them, even the pavement upon which his boots-his own boots-were set. His lack-lustre eyes travelled to the houses that bordered the square, then to the house against whose area railings he was leaning, and he started with amazement. For he was in Berkeley Square, leaning against the railing of number one thousand. He gazed up at the windows. One or two faint lights twinkled. Then perhaps the household had not yet retired for the night. An idea seized him. He must rest. He must snatch a brief interval of repose, before starting for the docks at dawn to find a ship in whose hold he could seek seclusion, till the great seas roared round her, and he could declare himself to the captain and crew without fear of being put ashore. Why not rest here in number one thousand? True, the Prophet would presently be returning possibly with Madame, but he would bribe Mr. Ferdinand not to mention his whereabouts. It was no doubt a very rash proceeding, but he was utterly exhausted, he felt that he could go no further, he found himself before an almost friendly door. What wonder then if he tottered up the steps and tapped feebly upon it? There was no answer. He tapped again more loudly. This time his summons was heard. Steps approached. There was a moment's pause. Then the door opened, and Gustavus appeared looking rather sleepy, but still decidedly intellectual. Malkiel the Second pulled himself together and faced the footman boldly.

"You know me?" he said.

Gustavus examined him closely.

"Yes, sir," he replied at length. "By the clothes. I should know Mr. Ferdinand's trouserings among a thousand."

Malkiel the Second realised that emotion probably rendered his face unrecognisable. But at least his legs spoke for him. That was something, and he continued, with an attempt at ease and boldness,-

"Right! I have returned to change them."

"Yes, sir. Mr. Ferdinand has retired to bed, sir."

"Don't wake him. I can just leave them for him."

"Very well, sir."

And Gustavus admitted Malkiel to the dimly-lit hall and shut the door softly.

"What is your name, young man?" said Malkiel, whispering.

"Gustavus, sir."

"Ah! Gustavus, would you like to earn a hundred pounds to-night?"

Gustavus started.

"I don't say as how I'd rather not, sir," he replied. "I don't go so far as to say that."

"Right! Do as I tell you and you will earn a hundred pounds."

The footman's eyes began to glow, almost like a cat's in the twilight.

"Why, I could buy the library near twelve times over," he murmured.

"The library?" said Malkiel, whose brain had suddenly become strangely clear.

"Ah, sir-Dr. Carter's," returned Gustavus, beginning to tremble.

"Dr. Carter's!" whispered Malkiel, excitedly. "I should think so. Eight guineas and a half, and you pay in instalments."

"I'll do it, sir," hissed Gustavus, utterly carried away by the prospect. "What d'you want me to do?"

"First to let me change my clothes quickly, then to hide me somewhere so as I can get a sleep till dawn. Call me directly it begins to get light and I shall be off to the docks."

"The docks, sir?"

"Ay. I start for-for Java to-morrow."

"Java, sir-what, where the sparrows and the jelly-"

"Ay, ay," returned Malkiel, secretly rehearsing his new nautical role.

"I'll do it sir. And the hundred?"

"I'll write you an order on my banker's. You can trust me. Now let me change my clothes. Quick!"

"They're in Mr. Vivian's bedroom, ain't they?"

Malkiel nodded.

"You must go very soft, sir, because of the old lady. She's abed, but she might be wakeful, specially to-night. She's been awful upset. My word, she has!"

"I'll go as soft as a mouse," whispered Malkiel. "Show me the way."

Gustavus advanced on tiptoe towards the staircase, followed by Malkiel, who held Mr. Ferdinand's clothes together lest they should rustle, and proceeded with the most infinite precaution. In this manner they gained the second floor and neared the bedroom door of Mrs. Merillia. Here Gustavus turned round, pointed to the door, and put his finger to his pouting lips, at the same time rounding his hazel eyes and shaking his powdered head in a most warning manner. Malkiel nodded, held Mr. Ferdinand's clothes tighter, and stole on, as he thought, without making a sound. What was his horror, then, just as he was passing Mrs. Merillia's door, to hear a voice cry,-

"Hennessey! Hennessey!"

Gustavus and Malkiel stopped dead, as if they had both been shot. They now perceived that the door was partially open, and that a faint light shone within the room.

"Hennessey!" cried the voice of Mrs. Merillia again. "Come in here. I must speak to you."

Gustavus darted on into the darkness of the Prophet's room, but Malkiel the Second was so alarmed that he stayed where he was, finding himself totally incapable of movement.

"Hennessey!" repeated the voice.

Then there was a faint rustling, the door was opened more widely, and Mrs. Merillia appeared in the aperture, clad in a most charming night bonnet, and robed in a dressing-gown of white watered silk.

"The ratcatcher!" she cried. "The ratcatcher!"

Malkiel turned and darted down the stairs, while Mrs. Merillia, in the extreme of terror, shut her door, locked it as many times as she could, and then hastened trembling to the bell which communicated with the faithful Mrs. Fancy, rang it, and dropped half fainting into a chair. Mrs. Fancy woke from her second dream just as Malkiel, closely followed by the now shattered Gustavus, reached the hall.

"Hide me! Hide me!" whispered Malkiel. "In here!"

And he darted into the servants' quarters, leaving Gustavus on the mat. Mrs. Merillia's other bell now pealed shrilly downstairs. Gustavus paused and pulled himself together. He was by nature a fairly intrepid youth, and moreover, he had recently made a close s

tudy of Carlyle's Heroes and Hero-worship, which greatly impressed him. He therefore resolved in this moment of peril to acquit himself in similar circumstances, and he remounted the stairs and reached Mrs. Merillia's door just as Mrs. Fancy, wrapped in a woollen shawl and wearing a pair of knitted night-socks, descended to the landing, candle in hand.

"Oh, Mr. Gustavus!" said Mrs. Fancy. "Is it the robbers again? Is it murder, Mr. Gustavus? Is it fire?"

"I don't know, Mrs. Fancy, I'll ask the mistress."

He tapped upon the door.

"You can't come in!" cried poor Mrs. Merillia, who was losing her head perhaps for the first time in her life. "You can't come in, and if you do I shall give you in charge to the police."

And she rang both her bells again.

"Ma'am!" said Gustavus, knocking once more. "Ma'am!"

"It's no use your knocking," returned Mrs. Merillia. "The door is bolted. Go away, go away!"

And again she rang her two bells.

"Madam!" piped Mrs. Fancy. "Madam! It's me!"

"I know," said Mrs. Merillia. "I know it's you! I saw you! Leave the house unless you wish to be at once put in prison."

Her bells pealed. Mrs. Fancy began to sob.

"Me to leave the house!" she wailed. "Me to go to prison!"

"Bear up, Mrs. Fancy, she doesn't know who it is!" said Gustavus. "Ma'am! Ma'am! Missis! Missis!"

"I am ringing," said Mrs. Merillia, in a muffled manner through the door. "I am summoning assistance! You will be captured if you don't go away."

And again she pealed her bells. This time, as she did so, the tingling of a third bell became audible in the silent house.

"Lord!" cried Gustavus, "if there isn't the hall door. It must be master. He left his key to-night. Here's a nice go!"

The three bells raised their piercing chorus. Mrs. Fancy sobbed, and Gustavus, after a terrible moment of hesitation, bounded down the hall. His instinct had not played him false. The person who had rung the bell was indeed the Prophet, who had basely slunk away from Zoological House, leaving Madame surrounded by her new and adoring friends.

"Thank you, Gustavus," he said, entering. "Take my coat, please. What's that?"

For Mrs. Merillia's bells struck shrilly upon his astonished ears.

"I think it's Mrs. Merillia, sir. She keeps on ringing."

"Mrs. Merillia. At this hour! Heavens! Is she ill?"

"I don't know, sir. She keeps ringing; but when I answer it she says, 'Go away!' she says. 'Go-' she says, sir."

"How very strange!"

And the Prophet bounded upstairs and arrived at his grandmother's door just in time to hear her cry out, in reply to poor Mrs. Fancy's distracted knocking,-

"If you try to break in you will be put in prison at once. I hear assistance coming. I hear the police. Go away, you wicked, wicked man!"

"Grannie!" cried the Prophet through the keyhole. "Grannie, let me in! Grannie! Grannie! Don't ring! Grannie! Grannie!"

But Mrs. Merillia was now completely out of herself, and her only response to her grandson's appeal was to place her trembling fingers upon the two bells, and to reply, through their uproar,-

"It is useless for you to say that. I know who you are. I saw you. I shall go on ringing as long as I can stand. I shall die ringing, but I shall never let you in. Go away! Go away!"

"What does she mean?" cried the Prophet, turning to Gustavus.

"I don't know indeed, sir," replied the footman, thinking of Mr. Carter's library. "I couldn't say indeed, sir."

"Oh, my poor missis!" wailed Mrs. Fancy, trembling in her night-socks. "Oh, my poor dear missis! I can't speak different nor mean other. Oh, missis, missis!"

"Hush, Fancy!" said the Prophet, in the greatest distraction. "Grannie! Grannie!"

And seizing the handle of the door he shook it violently. Mrs. Merillia was now very naturally under the impression that the ratcatcher was determined to break in and murder her without more ado. Extreme danger often seems to exercise a strangely calming influence upon the human soul. So it was now. Upon hearing her bedroom door quivering under the assault of the Prophet, Mrs. Merillia was abruptly invaded by a sort of desperate courage. She left the bells, tottered to the grate in which a good fire was blazing, seized the poker and thrust it between the bars and into the heart of the flames, at the same time crying out in a quavering but determined voice,-

"I am heating the poker! If you come in you will repent it. I am heating the poker!"

On hearing this remark, the Prophet desisted from his assault upon the door, overcome by the absolute conviction that his beloved grandmother was suffering from a pronounced form of homicidal mania. His affection prompted him to keep such a catastrophe secret as long as possible, and he therefore turned to Mrs. Fancy and Gustavus, and said hurriedly,-

"This is a matter for me alone. Mrs. Fancy, please go away at once. Gustavus, you will accompany Mrs. Fancy."

His manner was so firm, his face so iron in its determination, that Mrs. Fancy and Gustavus dared not proffer a word. They turned away and disappeared softly down the stairs, to wait the denouement of this tragedy in the hall below. Meantime the poker was growing red hot in the coals, and Mrs. Merillia announced to the supposed ratcatcher,-

"I can hear you-I hear you breathing-" (the Prophet endeavoured not to breathe). "I hear you rustling, but you can't touch me. The poker is red hot."

And she drew it smoking from the grate and approached the door, holding it in her delicate hand like a weapon.

"Grannie!" said the Prophet, making his voice as much like it generally was as he possibly could. "Dearest grannie!"

"I dare you to come in!" replied Mrs. Merillia, in an almost formidable manner. "I dare you to do it."

"I am not coming in, grannie," said the Prophet.

"Then go away!" said Mrs. Merillia. "Go away-and let me hear you going."

A sudden idea struck the Prophet. He did not say another word, but immediately walked downstairs, tramping heavily and shaking the wood balusters violently at every step he took. His ruse succeeded. Hearing the intruder depart, Mrs. Merillia's curious courage deserted her, she dropped the poker into the grate, and once more set both bells going with all her might and main. The Prophet let her ring for nearly five minutes, then he bounded once more upstairs and tapped very gently on the door.

"Grannie," he cried, "are you ringing? What is it?"

This time Mrs. Merillia recognised his voice, tottered to the door, unlocked it, and fell, trembling, into his anxious arms.

"Oh, Hennessey!" she gasped. "Oh-Hennessey!"

"Grannie, what is it? What on earth is the matter?"

"The ratcatcher! The ratcatcher!"

"The ratcatcher!" cried the Prophet.

"He has come back. He is here. He has been trying to break into my room."

"What ratcatcher?"

"The one that dined to-night-the one you called your old and-and valued-friend."

"Mr. Sagittarius?" exclaimed the Prophet.

"He is here."

"Here!"

"I have seen him. He has tried to murder me."

"I will look into this at once," said the Prophet.

He ran to the head of the stairs and called out,-

"Gustavus!"

"Sir!"

"Come up here at once."

Gustavus came, followed closely by Mrs. Fancy, who was in a state of abject confusion and alarm.

"Has Mr. Sagittarius returned here-the gentleman who dined to-night?" asked the Prophet.

Gustavus hesitated, thought of Dr. Carter's library, and replied,-

"No, sir."

"Has anybody entered the house?"

"No, sir."

"You have been up the whole evening?"

"Yes, sir."

"And nobody has been?"

"Nobody, sir."

"Grannie, you hear what Gustavus says."

"But, Hennessey, he is here; I saw him."

"Where?"

"By the door. I heard someone, and I thought it was you. I came to the door after calling you, and there he stood, all dirty and wet, with a huge hat on his head" (the saturnine little clergyman was largely blessed with brain), "and a most awful murderous expression on his face."

The Prophet began to suspect that his dear relative, upset by the tragic events of the dinner table, had gone to sleep and had the nightmare.

"Grannie, it must have been a dream."

"No, Hennessey, no."

"It must indeed. I left Mr. Sagittarius at Zoological House. I feel certain of that."

The Prophet spoke the honest truth. He fully believed that Mr. Sagittarius was at that very moment sharing in the triumph of his wife and receiving the worship of those who live the silly life.

"But I saw him, Hennessey," said Mrs. Merillia, adding rather unnecessarily, "with my own eyes."

"Grannie, darling, you must have been dreaming. At any rate, I'm here now. Nothing can hurt you. Go to bed. Fancy will stay with you, and I swear to you that no harm will happen to you so long as I am breathing."

With these noble words the Prophet kissed his grandmother tenderly, assisted Mrs. Fancy into the room, and walked downstairs quite determined that, come what might, whether he broke a thousand oaths or not, he would put an end forthwith to the tyranny of the couple from the Mouse and abandon for ever the shocking pursuit of prophecy.

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